Breaking News (a mid-month bloglet).

I Have A Logo!

A few weeks ago I was thinking about newsletters, headed paper, and business cards. I know, I know, I ought to be writing the novel, but we all need a bit of a break from the words every now and then. Cue some help from my fellow writers at the and now I have this:

Here’s some of the reasons behind this particular design:

  • The border around my name is in the shape of many of the Victorian street signs in London.
  • The text on these, and lots of modern ones, is red and black.
  • In Ancient Rome magpies were associated with magic and fortune telling.
  • Whilst the magpie’s love of shiny things is anecdotal, examples do exist of them stealing shiny objects which were then found in their nests – hence the jewel in the beak. (The ruby is also my birth stone and I happen to like them). There is stealing in my novel too, but the objects aren’s quite so shiny.
  • The Victorians were so afraid of magpies the birds were almost hunted to extinction, and the Church disliked them so much a rumour was started that they carried a drop of the devil’s blood on their tongues.
  • As I’m writing a novel involving ghosts and the supernatural, a magpie felt like the perfect bird to have sitting on a street sign when your protagonist walked by contemplating life and death, and whether there just might be something in-between.

For anyone else out there thinking about getting a logo I highly recommend having a look at getcovers website. They provide logos, covers, and other marketing materials, all at very competitive prices.

A Short Series of Great Beginnings: No. 1 

Possession: A Romance by A S Byatt

The St James’s Square entrance to the London Library. Roland’s window is above the door. Photo: J Harmon.

The librarian handed [the book] to Roland Michell, who was sitting waiting for it in the Reading Room of the London Library. It had been exhumed from Locked Safe no. 5 where it usually stood between Pranks of Priapus and The Grecian Way of Love. It was ten in the morning and, one day in September 1986. Roland had the small single table he liked best, behind a square pillar with the clock over the fireplace

A S Byatt, Possession, p.1

As a writer of historical fiction it seems only fitting to start this series with an historical novel. I first read Possession, or to give it it’s full title, Possession: A Romance, not long after it was published in the 1990s. It’s a dual timeline novel with four main characters. In 1986 Roland Michell works at the British Museum for Professor Blackadder and is researching the Victorian poet Henry Randolph Ash. At Lincoln University’s Women’s Resources Department Dr Maude Bailey has an interest in the poetess Christabel La Motte. In the nineteenth century Ash and LaMotte were contemporaries, but was there a connection?

Byatt begins by anchoring the reader in the stillness and silence that only a research library has. She describes the shelving that runs the length of the room and from floor to ceiling, only interrupted on one side by a wide stone fireplace. Then the slatted metal stairs that give access to the upper stacks of books. At both ends are high windows to let in the light, and everywhere the unmistakable smell of old leather and paper floats alongside the dust motes in the spring sunshine. The room is ‘alive with history’. George Eliot has recently passed through in her ‘black silk skirts, her velvet trains,’ but it’s also full of the living. Scholars argue ‘pleasantly’, the atmosphere is civilised, peaceful, but this does not last and there is a change with the arrival of the book. The dust on it when it is brought to Roland, is ‘black, thick, tenacious Victorian dust.’ There is a whiff of the extraordinary about it and the reader finds themselves part of a subtle shift between the present and the past.

Words also begin to change. When Roland unties the ribbon around the book it springs open ‘like a box’ and the pages are ‘disgorged’. There is a rush of energy and excitement. The book is not only a book it is a repository for bills and other papers, and on these Roland immediately recognises Ash’s handwriting. And he finds letters, unfinished, and addressed only to ‘Madam’. Here is the mystery, or the beginnings of it. There are questions that need to be answered.

A few weeks ago I went to the London Library and stood by the window behind the square pillar looking out over St James’s Square. There was no small table to sit at only a deep sill with some magazines laid out on it, and I imagined Roland in that fateful moment of indecision before he turned from researcher to thief. Then I looked at the clock and saw that it was lunchtime and a man was asleep in one of the dented armchairs by the fireplace. The peace of Byatt’s initial opening paragraphs was no fiction. It was almost like I had stepped between the pages of the novel.

Unlike Roland who forgot his, I had my lunch at Waterstones. I’d been lucky enough to hear A S Byatt speak at the Small Wonders Festival at Charleston in 2018 when she was presented with the Charleston-Bede Award for a Lifetime’s Excellence in Short Fiction. Interviewed by the novelist Alison MacLeod it had been a privilege to hear her speak about her writing career. If only there had been a way of bottling the energy in the room that night. Taking out my copy of Possession I flicked through the pages. How many times had I read it? Five? Six? I couldn’t remember. I turned to Chapter 1 and started again.

‘Oi, you cheeky nibbler’

One of the most interesting parts of writing historical fiction is getting to grips with the vocabulary of the period – and then dropping these words into conversations with friends and family. For instance, last week I needed a word that a Victorian might use to describe a sycophant. These days we’d probably call them a ‘bootlicker’ or a ‘toady’ if we didn’t want to be rude, or something rather nastier if we did. After some research, I came across the word ‘tufthunter’. Although it’s strictly an old university term, it seemed to fit the type of character I wanted to describe.

My favourite definition of the word came from

Tuft was from about 1670 a slang term for a golden ornamental tassel that was worn on an academic cap (a mortarboard) at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Most members of these universities had only a plain black tassel, but the titled undergraduates — noblemen and sons of noblemen — wore gold ones as a mark of their status. By an obvious transfer of sense, wearers of golden tufts were themselves called tufts. Those individuals who were slavish followers of the tufts, toadies or sycophants, became known as tufthunters.

Persons of the toadying persuasion have never had a good press. William Makepeace Thackeray described one in his Shabby Genteel Story of 1840: “Mr. Brandon was a tufthunter of the genteel sort; his pride being quite as slavish, and his haughtiness as mean and cringing, in fact, as poor Mrs. Gann’s stupid wonder and respect for all the persons whose names are written with titles before them. O free and happy Britons, what a miserable, truckling, cringing race you are!”

The more concise Merriam Webster definition of tufthunter is here.

After testing the word out on a few people who gave it the thumbs up I sent it to my American son-in-law for one final opinion. ‘I’ll have to remember that one,’ he said. I wonder if he’s got someone in mind he can use it on?

Tufthunter will appear in a scene where my main character, Jack, is lying in bed going back over the day’s events. He’s been asked to help investigate a murder which the local police are showing no interest in solving, but when he arrives in the village of Cattawade it’s soon clear that there’s more to the death of Mina Lawn than he’s been led to believe.

Laying back, hands pillowing my head, I went back over everything. The kid’s story about a  ‘ghost’  could be easily explained, it was the rest that had knocked me right off balance. First, there’d been Ruby’s news, not what I’d been expecting to hear, and then I’d been smacked in the face by some stranger. With Haddock on his way, I’d got no choice but to put the problem of Ruby and the child to one side, and concentrate on the Lawn case. That would please Gabriel and Jenny too and, I hoped, keep me out of at least one sort of trouble.

I closed my eyes, but something else about Mina’s death still tickled in the back of my head. Something I’d been chasing around all day and still hadn’t caught up with. I’d learned a lot more about the Lawns from my visits to the boat shed and their house with Gabriel and, added to what Rosamund had told me, I had a fair idea of how the little family worked. What I didn’t know was how the other brother, that tufthunter Horace, fitted in. Since no one wanted to talk about him it was no good my asking so I’d have to rely on my own eyes and ears. With luck, I’d turn up something useful at the old girl’s shop in the morning. Given Haddock’s gibe about my not being up to snuff it would be good to chuck a hefty lump of information in his direction. That would give the little Inspector something to chew on.”

Other words I’ve used have been far more common than tufthunter, but every bit as entertaining. Here are just a few from A Vocabulary of the Flash Language, a glossary attached to The Memoirs of James Hardy Vaux Written by Himself. Vaux’s work was published in two volumes by W Clowes of Northumberland Court, Strand, London, in 1819.

Best to give a ‘nibbler’ a wide berth as he’s a pilferer or petty thief. Don’t  get too close to a ‘dipper’ either as he’ll pick your pocket and make off with your ‘fogle’ (silk handkerchief) or your ‘reader’ (pocketbook). As for a ‘whiddler’ never trust him, or her, with a secret. They’re far too talkative and are bound to let it slip to the wrong person.

Given that all the books in my Victorian series contain a smattering of such words I’ve been asked recently if I’m going to include a glossary. I’m tempted, but the last thing I want to do is haul the reader back to reality by making them stop and turn to the back of the book. (Something very high up on the writer’s list of fatal mistakes). It’s probably better for me to cut the obscure words in the final edit. That’s a problem for much later though. For now, they’re staying in, for no better reason than they add to the fun of writing the story.